A sweltering strip of low-lying, tropical land, some 300km long and 50km wide, Guatemala’s Pacific coast is usually known as La Costa Sur. Featureless yet fertile, the coastal plain is a land of vast fincas, dull commerce-driven towns and ramshackle seaside resorts. The main attraction should be the coastline, though as the sand is black and the ocean has a dangerous undertow this region is not a big draw for travellers. But if you’re yearning for some ocean air, and pick your spot carefully, the coast does have a couple of attractive beaches and some intriguing attractions dotted along the Pacific highway.
It’s certainly not a resort, but the little seaside settlement of Monterrico has an unspoilt charm and is well worth a visit. Here you’ll find a superb beach (a magnet for sea turtles) and a rich network of mangrove wetlands to explore. In the far west, and the twin villages of Tilapa and Tilapita also offer sweeping sands, no crowds and relatively safe swimming.
Several ancient Mesoamerican cultures once flourished in the region, leaving some important archeological remains. The one site in the area that comes close to ranking with those elsewhere in the country is Takalik Abaj, outside Retalhuleu, which displays both Maya and Olmec heritage.
Steadily the Pacific coast is gaining a reputation as a world-class sport-fishing location – offshore waters have stupendous numbers of sailfish, tarpon, tuna and marlin. Iztapa and Puerto Quetzal are the main bases for excursions. The region also has a couple of world-class theme parks on the Pacific slope that represent a huge draw for families.
It’s generally held that sophisticated Olmec influence – emerging first in Mexico and spread along the coast – shaped both Ocós and Iztapa cultures, which thrived here after 1500 BC. These were small, village-based societies that developed considerable skills in the working of stone and pottery.
Between 400 and 900 AD, parts of the coastal plain were overrun by the Pipil, who migrated south from Mexico, bringing new architectural styles and artistic skills. They established settlements with compact ceremonial centres and rubble-filled pyramids and traded cacao. The first Spaniards to set foot in Guatemala did so on the Pacific coast. In colonial times indigo and cacao were cultivated and cattle ranches established, but the inhospitable climate and accompanying diseases took their toll, and for the most part the region remained a miserable backwater. It was only after independence that commercial agriculture began to dominate. By the early twentieth century, the area was important enough to justify the construction of two railways to the coast and a line to the Mexican border.
Today the coastal strip is the country’s most intensely farmed region, with entire villages effectively owned by vast fincas. There’s a little domestic tourism but in general it’s agribusiness – palm oil, bananas and sugar on the coast and coffee on the Pacific slope – that dominates the local economy.Read More
The eastern coast of Guatemala has a different culinary tradition. Here Creole and Garífuna cooking, which incorporates the influences of the Caribbean and Africa, is easy to find in Puerto Barrios and Lívingston. Seafood dominates the scene, along with coconut and plantain. Tapado is probably the region’s signature dish, a seafood soup that’s a superb mix of fish (typically snapper), prawns, coconut milk, peppers, plantain and spices, though you’ll also find plenty of grilled fish, lobster, conch fritters and pan de coco (coconut bread).
Most of Guatemala’s Pacific coastline is affected by a strong undertow, which occurs when big waves break on a shore with a steep profile. Because there’s nowhere for the water to escape, it retreats backwards under the next breaking wave, creating a downward force close to the shore. Unless you’re very confident in the ocean, it’s best not to mess around if the surf is big. By not getting out of your depth, you can use your feet to jump up into the oncoming waves and let their force push you toward the shore. If you do get caught in an undertow, don’t panic, as the downward force only lasts a second or two and you’ll soon surface. Catch a breath, duck under the next breaker, and then work your way steadily back to shore.
Fiestas in the Pacific coast
Fiestas in the Pacific coast
Ladino culture dominates on the Pacific coast so fiestas here tend to be more along the lines of fairs, with parades, amusement rides, fireworks, sporting events and heavy drinking.
Taxisco, events include bullfighting
Colomba, events include bullfighting
Coatepeque, main day 15th
Puerto San José, main day 19th
Chiquimulilla, main day 3rd
Coatepeque, in honour of Santiago Apóstol
Champerico, main day 6th
Iztapa, main day 24th
Retalhuleu, main day 8th
Escuintla, main day 8th